Cisco's ACI Delivers Tactical Benefits but Lacks Strategic Value of SDN

Archived Published: 07 November 2013 ID: G00258740

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Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure is a strong next-generation network solution, but requires new network switches. This should drive many potential customers, particularly VMware shops, to evaluate alternatives.

News Analysis


On 6 November 2013, Cisco announced the details of its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), including new switches with embedded application-aware functionality delivered via a fabric controller. The solution scales to very large data centers and promises better integration between applications and the underlying network.


ACI is especially important to Cisco now that emerging software-defined networking (SDN) and related technologies are threatening its longtime dominance. The announcement follows similar competitive solutions from VMware, HP, Juniper and Alcatel-Lucent, and sets up a major battle for data center influence, particularly between Cisco and VMware.

ACI offers several benefits:

  • It provides a strong network fabric and includes real-time application health statistics.

  • ACI supports both physical and virtual environments, is "agnostic" with regard to virtualization software and overcomes the potential disconnect in competing solutions between overlay and underlay.

  • ACI’s template-based provisioning and automation should improve network agility.

  • The Nexus 9000 pricing is aggressive and will be attractive for customers that require new switching hardware.

  • The Nexus hardware can run as a conventional switch or in “ACI” mode, and supports existing Nexus 2000 fabric extenders.

These benefits will resonate with many, but several concerns remain:

  • ACI is proprietary, resulting in lock-in to Cisco’s hardware and provisioning software.

  • ACI doesn’t circumvent the need for virtualized compute provisioning, requiring customers to provision in multiple consoles.

  • In Gartner's view, Cisco’s track record with application-focused offerings is poor, as evidenced by its departure from the application delivery controller (ADC) market.

  • ACI forces customers to buy hardware to achieve networking agility — alternative solutions do not, are quicker to implement and are often less expensive for customers that don’t require new hardware.

  • The partner ecosystem is missing several key players (including Riverbed and Palo Alto), which limits the benefit for those who’ve deployed best-of-breed solutions.

While ACI improves agility, it depends on an architectural model that limits innovation and will not provide the long-term strategic benefits of SDN. We predict that initial ACI deployments will be in "greenfield" opportunities for existing customers where the network team has greater influence than the virtualization team. Consequently, significant organizational conflict may arise around who “owns” application networking solutions.


Senior IT infrastructure leaders should:

  • Pilot ACI and competitively bid versus alternatives (such as VMware and HP) if networking agility is a challenge in your environment.

  • Drive consensus between virtualization and networking teams before purchasing any networking agility solution.

  • Competitively bid Nexus 9000 hardware versus alternatives in greenfield and switch refresh cycles.

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